For a career still in its infancy, Tom Cleverley’s already become a paradox. For all the youngster’s inexperience, Cleverley will start the forthcoming season as his fifth in senior professional football. Still in the throes of youth, yet the Basingstoke-born midfielder turns 23 in August. For all the talk of ‘brand Cleverley’ the player is yet to win a trophy at the highest level. And despite the belief that the kid can replace Paul Scholes as Manchester United’s creative force, Cleverley is yet to complete a full campaign as a player.
It is a career of immense promise, as yet unfulfilled by consistent performances, or some may add, an injury-free run with four different clubs. Indeed, the talented 22-year-old faces a pivotal coming season having missed out on much of the previous campaign with an ankle injury, and England’s Euro 2012 party too. No longer can Cleverley afford to stand still, wait on the sidelines, or – the nightmare scenario – the physiotherapist’s bench.
Despite the limited appearances in a United shirt to date – just 15 in competitive matches – Cleverley made his club debut on the Reds’ pre-season tour of South Africa in July 2008, converting Wayne Rooney’s knock-down for United’s third goal in a 4-0 win over Kaizer Chiefs in Johannesburg.
The summer tour proved not to be the breakthrough into Sir Alex Ferguson’s first team though, with the 2007/08 Denzil Haroun Reserve Player of the Year award nominee farmed out to Leicester City on loan in January 2009. After 15 appearances for the Tigers Cleverley’s loan spell came to an abrupt end when he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury; the first of many.
The following campaign Cleverley joined Watford, scoring 11 times in 33 games for the Championship outfit before suffering a knee injury and yet another premature end to the season.
Another loan, this time to Wigan Athletic during the 2010/11 season, came after Cleverley had joined the Reds’ summer tour to the United States, and Ferguson’s assertion that the youngster would remain at Old Trafford. Yet, the loan spell at Wigan proved to be successful, if blighted – once again – by niggling injuries. Four goals in 25 appearances followed in a frustratingly stop-start season.
It has been the pattern of a young career; talent interrupted. Indeed, Cleverley began the 2011/12 season with Ferguson’s first team, coming on to such devastating effect during the Community Shield, and then in games against West Bromwich Albion, and Arsenal, before injury struck once again against Bolton Wanderers. An abortive comeback against Everton in September only succeeded in aggravating the problem, essentially ending Cleverley’s season as a first team regular.
“I’d hate to be getting the injury-prone tag because the injuries I’ve had have all been contact, impact or reckless tackles,” said Cleverley who has suffered a broken leg, serious knee, ankle and shoulder injuries.
“It’s not like I’m picking up hamstring injuries or thigh injuries all the time. Hopefully I’m getting all the bad luck out at the start of my career and I can go on to play as long as Giggsy – he’s the perfect example.
“The first couple of weeks was just basically resting and staying off my feet That helped massively. Then I got back into the gym from then for about two months and worked massively hard with Neil Hough, Rob Swire, the doc and the hard work paid off. I definitely filled out a bit.
“When you’re not on the pitch you can work on other areas. I did work with video analysis, I worked hard in the gym on my upper body and I did vision work too. It’s a fantastic training ground because you can work hard on all aspects of your game when you’re injured. Everything I could work on, I worked on. I’ve done everything I can while I’ve been out.”
Yet, Cleverley’s hard work in the gym is yet to nullify criticism of ‘brand TC23’ and the player’s commercial aspirations during a lengthy period on the sidelines. The midfielder appointed a brand consultancy last season to develop commercial revenue, while a Twitter handle that boasts more than 500,000 followers offers regular updates on the player’s sponsors – on one occasion five commercial messages in succession.
Add the glamour model girlfriends, lurid newspaper stories – one later brought to court – and there is legitimate reason to question the player’s commitment; a charge Cleverley patently rejects.
Still, there is pressing need to deliver on the pitch in the coming season if a talented player’s progress is not to be stilted. He cannot afford another 15-20 game season. Yet, the summer acquisitions of Japanese playmaker Shinji Kagawa and Crewe Alexandra’s Nick Powell add significant competition, even if the latter is likely to start the new campaign with the reserves.
Kagawa, however, is a serious barrier to Cleverley’s potential game time in the attacking midfield position in Ferguson’s likely 4-2-3-1 system next season. The England international may instead compete with Michael Carrick, Paul Scholes and Anderson for a spot in central midfield or, worse, be shunted out to the wing.
Moreover, it is a challenge that may be affected by a call up to Great Britain’s Olympic squad, with the youngster believed to be on Stuart Pearce’s long-list of 35 players.
“The Olympics in London is probably a once-in-a-lifetime thing, so to be involved would be a massive thing for me,” Cleverley said recently.
“It’s a massive event, one of the highlights of the summer, and the Olympics in London is probably a once-in-a-lifetime thing, so to be involved would be a massive thing for me. An Olympic gold would be special because it’s so unique.”
Sir Alex, who has banned any over-age players bar Ryan Giggs joining up with the Olympic squad, may disagree. And if inclusion in the party comes at the expense of missing the opening games of the new season, Cleverley may have course to regret it too.